It was 1997. I was 11 years old. (Damn.) When The Velvet Rope released (on my birthday), I was already deeply entrenched in my love of Janet Jackson. It was one of the first albums I ever owned on my own. Bought it with my allowance. I put it in my CD player as soon as I got home. My entire world tilted on its axis.
Much is made about Jackson's sexual expression around that time. Especially given four years earlier we were all made privy to her sexual awakening. By the time she unleashed The Velvet Rope on the world we weren't sure what to expect. I knew for sure she was going to bring us more of her sensuality. What I wasn't expecting was that I'd be so deeply impacted.
It opens on radio white noise, leading into a somber piano, filtered horn stabs. Janet's voice, quiet and almost guarded. She spoke of needing to guard this instinctual desire for us to feel special. Not be special. To feel that there's something in us that's important and necessary. "This need created the velvet rope."
At that point I had no idea I was searching for the words to what I was feeling. I was 11 years old, for crying out loud. Why would that be something I was thinking about. The Velvet Rope came to me at a very interesting time in my development. Without going into the details, let's just say I'd spent the last three years being demeaned and degraded because of the things my body was doing. I was constantly mocked by certain teachers because there were hard emotions churning inside me I didn't feel safe expressing to anyone around me. I wasn't "Cy" at that point. I was the funny, bubbly, smart and energetic little girl who most of the teachers loved and who had so many friends. The parts hidden in the shadows were ignored, ridiculed or I was just forced to keep them inside.
My escape was always music. And Janet was a beacon guiding me through a lot of murky waters. My true self was submerged in a thick bog of confusion, anger, pain. And not a single person knew or (I thought) cared. After all, what does a child know of pain? How can a child suffer from depression? She doesn't even know what that means. True, I didn't know what to call it. But I did know that there was something gritty and broken festering in the pit of my soul. (A thing I understood early on that no adult in my life actually believed I had at my age.)
So hearing Janet talk about protecting the feeling of someone acknowledging that you are actually special...It stitched itself to my heart. Forever sewn to me like Peter Pan's shadow. Shadow, where who I was stayed, behind me, hidden in black and gray.
This special need that's within us brings out the best yet worst in use. Follow the threshold that's within you. Living the truth will set you free. --"The Velvet Rope"
When Janet invited me beyond her velvet rope, it was on the jagged edges of a guitar, then culminated in the screech and cry of Vanessa Mae's violin. (Another hero of that time for young girls like me who didn't know classical could rock so hard.) The song listed in the static for a bit before riding the last bits of tremolo reverb into song "You."
"You" made it clear if I wanted to free myself, it was entirely on me. I was constantly pretending to be everything for everybody around me. To avoid physical attacks, you have to make sure everyone likes you. If you're going to avoid being constantly drenched in mockery, filth and anger, you have to smile and make others smile with you.
Spent all your life pretending not to be the one you are but who you choose to see. Learned to survive in your fictitious world. Does what they think of you determine your worth? If special's what you feel when you're with them, taken away you'll feel less than again. --"You"
And there it was. My 11-year-old self described in one stanza. From that lyric on I knew this was going to be one of the most defining pieces of art to enter my life. Never mind the music was something out of this universe. Janet's gritty delivery, mumbled in the verses, then all but shouted in the chorus pierced my skin. Leaving a permanent mark like a tattoo. Vocals sifted through a fuzz filter painting a muddy picture of a fractured, manipulated woman. Yes, The Velvet Rope was on its way to becoming a life-defining masterpiece for me.
Then..."Got 'Til It's Gone."
Before seeing the awe-inspiring music video. Before the vitriol people placed on the song because of the complicated history of its creation. Before I knew who Joni Mitchell was by name (I knew her by song, but at that point couldn't tell you who she was). "Got 'Til It's Gone" utterly ruined me for any other song for a solid six months. The raw, sparse vocalization, soft and smooth, lilting like a lullaby. The moody blues of the musical composition. It was the perfect combination of voice, lyric and production. It felt warm, open, welcoming, understanding. How could a song understand me? Speaking of a love lost, not realizing what you had until it's too late. Yes, I'd known a love like that. (Again, in silence.)
The entire album was an honest and true diary. Janet gave us so much more of herself than she ever had. Though I couldn't apply every song to my life at that point, I could certainly feel the melancholy in the music itself. "My Need" and "What About" were above my experience at that point, but they were no less impactful.
Still, I knew enough about myself, my body to understand and relate to songs like "Free Xone," "Empty" and "I Get Lonely." I wanted someone to want me. To look for the me everyone ignored in lieu of crucifying me for existing. Yeah, I realize most might think this is dramatic coming from the mind of a then 11-year-old. But that's exactly why someone like me could fall so deeply into an album like The Velvet Rope. Because nobody else wanted to listen or hear these things coming from the mouth and mind of a child. Even at that age I understood if I said everything I would either be in trouble or would be looked at differently. At that point (and for the next 20 years) I wasn't ready to deal with being thrown away or face harsher ridicule. So I listened to The Velvet Rope. I identified the parts of Janet's diary that I knew to be true to my own thoughts (sealed away so no one could judge me). Damn, I was a lonely little girl, wasn't I?
The final two songs on the album, "Special" and hidden deep cut "Can't Be Stopped," brought everything full circle. They were the culmination of years of wading through hurt. These two tracks were so profound in their depth of healing that when I listened to them I ran to my father (a musician himself) and just gushed. She'd gone from telling us the years of hurt catch up to us if we don't deal with them to proclaiming I am of ancestral royalty.
You must remember that you were born of blood of kings and queens and can't be stopped. Stay strong, my sister, you can't be stopped. --"Can't Be Stopped"
What a message for an 11-year-old to hear! You are royalty. Yes, a work in progress, but also a regal being of starlight and strength.
Without realizing it at the time, The Velvet Rope was the beginning of my evolution as a person. Sitting through that album was the catalyst of a new layer of self-discovery for me. I was still deeply entrenched in hurt and heartache, and wouldn't surface from it for quite some time. But at least I had my first piece of the puzzle that was figuring out how to not only be myself, but express myself. It would be a long journey wrought with more heartache, abuse, pain to the truest form of me that I am today. (Largely lived in silence because I couldn't trust most people.) But at least I had somewhere to start.
This album is so important to me on levels I can't get into fully. It's as if Janet for some reason knew my life. Knew what I'd been through even at that age. People have a funny way of thinking they know everything about me based on how I speak, how I interact with them, my age, my face, whatever. Not a single one of them got as close as Janet did with The Velvet Rope.